What Elon Musk has said about Ilya Sutskever, the chief scientist at the center of OpenAI’s leadership upheaval 


OpenAI just underwent an abrupt, dramatic leadership shakeup. A key figure at the center of the turmoil is also a big reason that Tesla CEO Elon Musk is no longer friends with Google cofounder and former CEO Larry Page. 

On Friday, OpenAI announced that cofounder and CEO Sam Altman had been fired by the board of directors, and that Mira Murati, the chief technology officer, would serve as interim CEO. The maker of the AI chatbot ChatGPT claimed that Altman was “was not consistently candid” with the board, without providing details.

It also said that another cofounder, chairman Greg Brockman, would be removed from that role while staying at the company. But Brockman then indicated that he would quit.

That meant that there was only remaining member of the core founding group behind OpenAI: Ilya Sutskever, the company’s chief scientist. A Russian-born Israeli-Canadian, Sutskever is a leading expert in deep learning, a subset of machine learning. He’s also on OpenAI’s board.

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Ilya Sutskever, Russian Israeli-Canadian computer scientist and cofounder and chief scientist of OpenAI, speaks at Tel Aviv University on June 5.

JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

“Last night, Sam got a text from Ilya asking to talk at noon Friday,” Brockman wrote on X late Friday. “Sam joined a Google Meet and the whole board, except Greg, was there. Ilya told Sam he was being fired and that the news was going out very soon.”

Musk’s tussle with Google over Sutskever

Musk has a history with both OpenAI, which he played a key role in starting, and with Sutskever, whom he persuaded to join OpenAI as a cofounder and chief scientist in 2015, rather than stay at Google. On a Nov. 9 episode of the Lex Fridman Podcast, Musk described how pivotal Sutskever was to the success of OpenAI. 

In 2015, Musk said, he worked hard to recruit Sutskever to OpenAI, which he then envisioned as open-source nonprofit that would act as a counterweight to Google’s power in artificial intelligence. Musk has long warned of the potential dangers of AI. 

Meanwhile Demis Hassabis, cofounder and CEO of DeepMind, which Google acquired in 2014, was trying to persuade Sutskever that Google was the best place for him.  

“It was mostly Demis on one side and me on the other, both trying to recruit Ilya, and Ilya went back and forth,” said Musk. “Finally he did agree to join openAI. That was one of the toughest recruiting battles I’ve ever had, but that was really the linchpin for OpenAI being successful.”

Musk described himself as the “prime move behind OpenAI, in the sense that it was created because of discussions that I had with [Google cofounder] Larry Page back when he and I were friends.” 

He described staying at Page’s house and talking to him about AI safety.

“Larry did not care about AI safety, or at least at the time he didn’t,” Musk said. “At one point he called me a speciesist for being pro-human. And I’m like, ‘Well, what team are you on Larry?’”

Musk said that what concerned him was that Google had acquired DeepMind and had “probably two-thirds of all the AI researchers in the world. They had basically infinite money and compute, and the guy in charge, Larry Page, did not care about safety.” 

When Fridman suggested Musk and Page might become friends again, Musk replied, “I’d like to be friends with Larry again. Really the breaking of the friendship was over OpenAI, and specifically I think the key moment was recruiting Ilya Sutskever.” 

Musk called Sutskever “a good human—smart, good heart.” 

Disappointment with OpenAI

Musk left OpenAI’s board in 2018 after a power struggle. In the years since he’s expressed disgust with its direction under Altman, especially after OpenAI accepted billions in investments from Microsoft and moved away from its nonprofit status.  

Altman has called Musk a “jerk” but also recently acknowledged his role in OpenAI’s founding. 

“Elon was definitely a talent magnet and attention magnet, for sure, and also just like has some real superpowers that were super helpful to us in those early days,” he said on the In Good Company podcast in September.

Musk, for his part, tweeted earlier this year, “OpenAI was created as an open source (which is why I named it “Open” AI), non-profit company to serve as a counterweight to Google, but now it has become a closed source, maximum-profit company effectively controlled by Microsoft. Not what I intended at all.” 

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